Connectivity in South East Asian countries could serve lesson for South Asia

Massive integration and connectivity of South East Asia despite differences over the last decade should serve lessons to Nepal and South Asia, said panellists at the Kantipur Conclave on Friday.

South Asia is one of the least connected regions in the world, according to the World Bank, with intraregional trade being one of the lowest in the world and accounts for about only five percent of the region's total trade.

Read: Keynote speakers at Kantipur Conclave discuss different facets of connectivity

“About 10 years ago, they were discussing the theme of connectivity,” said Gwen Robinson, Editor at Large of Nikkei Asia Review, a journal focused on Asian economies. “Since then, infrastructure projects related to connectivity exploded with funding from different agencies. Nepal and South Asia should look into it.”

She said that despite having their independent agenda, they went ahead of a lot of regional cooperation mechanisms. “The binding glue for them was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” she said during the discussion on the theme ‘Lessons from the East.’ Efforts to integrate South Asia have failed to yield results due to antagonistic relations between India and Pakistan.

So, the Saarc Summit, a meeting of top leaders of South Asian nations, planned for November 2016 in Pakistan was cancelled and has not taken place yet. “Non-cooperation is a major problem in South Asia compared to South East Asia,” said Robinson.

To increase connectivity, Southeast Asian nations have taken both regional and sub-regional approach. “Mainland Southeast Asian nations created Greater Mekong Sub-regional Group, giving rise to a lot of cross border planning and dealing in the areas of customs and duties and establishment of special economic zones in bordering regions,” said Robinson.

In South Asia too, there has been some effort to focus on sub-regional cooperation such as the informal grouping of BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal), but even that has not bore fruit.

Despite low connectivity, speakers say there is a scope for increased connectivity in South Asia.

Sharing his experiences when the power secretaries of Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Bhutan met in 2014 to discuss establishing connectivity in the power sector, Valentino S Bagatsing, president and chief executive officer of ICCP, said that these countries could work together to connect each other with power lines. “They can also lay fibre optics and take advantage of the digital industry,” he said.

But, panellists agreed that country to country connectivity alone is not enough to boost the economy and stressed that internal connectivity should also be increased.

“For example, there is a more decentralised drive for infrastructure development compared to South East Asia,” said Neeta Pokharel, unit head, project administration, South Asia Urban and Water Division at Asian Development Bank. “India has the capacity to be self-reliant at the local level, unlike Nepal.”

She stressed on the need for local governance reforms and incentivising them for carrying out reforms. “Let the local governments compete with each other in bringing reforms,” she said.